Pre-Departure Bureaucracy

In essence, to study abroad at IPFW, after you have picked your program and all (which you should have worked out with the study abroad adviser, Meg Underwood) and applied or are halfway through them, you have six major concerns.

1. Immigration

Immigration in the US is the toughest in the world. As an international student who makes round trips to the US twice a year, I can vouch for that. Nothing gets past them – not tiny shampoo bottles, half empty water bottles, or those marijuana lollipops tourists buy in Amsterdam thinking they have THC – FYI, they don’t, and there are much cooler things to do in Amsterdam, like bike tours and boat rides. Point being, make sure you have your documents in order. Americans are somewhat privileged in the sense that they aren’t subject to much scrutiny; frankly, neither am I, as a white woman who looks like she’s 15 years-old. Having said that, other passports, entitled attitudes, and a general perceived ignorance about local customs and preparation for immigration are usually met unwillingly, so try to be ready. Check twice if you need a visa with your consulate, and one more time for each study abroad adviser – for instance, I had my school’s adviser and and ISEP adviser. Check if your passport is valid as well, otherwise it might be hard to come back to the US – or other countries, but the US are sticklers for documentation.

Finally, this is just common courtesy. Even if you already know all those things, make sure to check at least once more the month before leaving – what if?

2. Getting the tickets

You’re all set, good for you – but you need the tickets, man. Some places may be cheaper, like Mexico and Puerto Rico, but further distances like Australia, Japan and even Belgium are more expensive. Don’t forget to account for that in your budget – I did, and had to beg my parents to sponsor the tickets, or I wouldn’t have any pocket money. The arlier you book your tickets, the better the chances to get your tickets. Also, try to keep an open mind about flying dates. I’m usually supposed to be in the US on August 18th~, but I arrive a week earlier because tickets are usually cheaper then, and it is cheaper to get a motel room than flying later. So, be flexible – they won’t bar you from the country for getting there a couple days early – or later.

3. Packing for it all

When I got to Belgium, the sun was shining, the bees were buzzing and the weather was a s pleasant as it gets. It was warm enough to wear shorts, but not so hot that wearing pats became unbearable; it was just as the weekly weather forecast had predicted: sunny all over. At least for the first three days. On Wednesday night of my first week,t eh weather took a turn and the temperature dropped to 15ºC (which I don’t know the value in Fahrenheit, but i’m guessing something like 55). That was chilly, and I was wearing a dress. It was uncomfortable to walk home and take the train while rubbing my hands to keep them sensitive, but I got used to the cold. Luckily, I had brought my trusty jeans jacket and a grey blazer with horrendous shoulder-pads to keep me warm. On week three, it started to rain. My jacket couldn’t save me for that. Apparently, my boss told me at work, Brussels rains a lot. Its summers are usually really cloudy with rainy days and stormy nights – he had no idea why the weather had been so nice lately. Thus, I made poor research, and will probably have to buy an umbrella or something with a hoodie to survive the summer without getting pneumonia. SO: even if you think it won’t happen, take at least one piece of clothing for every scenario. You may be going to the warm spring in Spain, but maybe you will visit the Italian Alps – if you don’t bring a thick coat, you’ll have to buy one. Trust me, it’s not worth it in euros. Best advice? Bring versatile shoes, no more than four, and a raincoat that works as a windbreaker – if it gets too cold, wear it with a sweatshirt. For winter-goers, bring at least one pair of shorts in addition to your pajamas, and something you wouldn’t bother wearing when you got soaking wet – it works as a pajama in extreme settings, a bathing suit in the lack of one, and clothes for rain and exercise.

4. Is this really happening?

Most people, as the time to leave comes closer, often go through that moment in which they ask themselves if they are truly going abroad, or if it is just part of an overtly-elaborate dream. You are. Check your passport, get your bag started at least a week before leaving so that you can add stuff as you remember, and always make a final check – preferably with your mom – to figure out if you’re forgetting something important, taking something unnecessary, or if your bag is over the weight limit (in Brazil it is 32kg, and there have been occasions in which it went over the limit). That prevents additional taxes for overweight baggage and much embarrassment in case the airport staff makes you redistribute the weight of your bags in the middle of the airport – it happened to my parents.

 Freshman 2.0, long-distance edition

Preparing to study abroad feels a lot like the month before going to college, in which you are preparing for your freshman year. Usually, you don’t know anyone, and in this case it is most likely true – unless you have really well coordinated and dedicated friends or stalked people who signed up for the same program as you. The point is, the majority of people go without knowing anyone, and I will admit: it is a lot like freshman year. In orientation you can already tell who came from the same university, who came from the US and who came from other countries. Americans tend to stick together, and Asian kids tend to not speak during orientation, either by cultural expectations in the classroom or insecurity about the foreign language of the program. You may sit together and exchange contact info and get along really well with people in orientation day, but let me tell you: that does not last. You will have different classes, probably, live in different dorms, meet different people and probably won’t jump the gun to schedule a trip together on that first day. I made most of my friends on the first hang with the student government at my school. I had lunch with some sorority girls during orientation, but I much rather stick with low-key people – it makes me pop.

THE POINT IS: the first day does not matter that much. Focus on learning about your schedule, find your classrooms, find the way home and the fastest way to class, where you can get cheap food and good food, and know who else is in the program – but you don’t need to latch onto the first group of people you see because you think you won’t be invited to anything else if you don’t – you have the rest of the program to do that. Whether it is a semester or a month and a half, like me, you have plenty of time to get to know new people once you get your footing abroad. Also, try to stray from your comfort zone. I know it is tempting to befriend people form the same nationality, specially people who are going through the same experience as you, but you’re not studying abroad to meet more Americans, you are there to know yourself as you relate to new and different things/people. Befriend locals, they might know a thing or two.

6. Am I ready for this?

I ask myself this one a lot. I’m kind of childish, I make jokes about everything, and in my internship interview, my interviewer called me cynical.

But I got the job. I got into the program. I got the cash through work and scholarships (well, most of it), and I turned in all my documents to Meg on time. That is, my class approval forms, my applications, my insurance, the waiver and all. I applied to 6 scholarships and got an award I had no idea existed. You can too.

If you went through all of that, you are ready. You put in the work, and now you get to enjoy. I always hear that the hardest part is the application. You have to keep track of foreign language assessments, course equivalency searches, adviser approvals, scholarship applications (including the honors scholarship for study abroad), essay writing and travel document emission – and yet, somehow, a bunch of 20-something students make it through and go to Europe, Latin America, Australia, Asia and even the UAE. If you can get through that, the rest of the program is a breeze – your bills are settled, now you just have to enjoy and learn.

 

My application was chaotic because I applied to two different programs by two very different companies, because I was insecure about my chances of getting into the program (and the internship) in Belgium – but I did. If I, an average B+ student with mediocre English skills, can do it, any American with a 2.5 GPA and a qualitative appeal for US citizen scholarships can go – and go again. Make use of that internationally respected passport.

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